What do you NEED to know? (2/2)

As a belated (and inadvertent) follow-up to Mrs. A’s lesson, I learned more about the purpose of teaching at the University of Illinois Chicago campus.

One of the professors I met there has a son with Fragile X Syndrome. Since she was teaching our class about teaching, she shared a story about her son’s lessons.

His class was learning colors; green for “go” (as in, it’s time to go play or it’s time to cross the street), red for “stop” or “hot” or “danger,” purple for “Barney,” blue for “Thomas the Tank Engine,” orange for… well, her son wasn’t too interested in orange. Or pink. Or any of the other colors that didn’t have a direct use-value for him (as in, safety) or some application to his interests (as in, Barney and Thomas the Tank Engine).

Just another thing to think about. What do you need to know? Why do you need to know it? And, seriously, what do garages have to do with standardized testing?

Put another way by Walker Percy in “The Loss of the Creature” (c. 1975):

A young Falkland Islander walking along a beach and spying a dead dogfish and going to work on it with his jackknife has, in a fashion wholly unprovided in modern educational theory, a great advantage over the Scarsdale high-school pupil who finds the dogfish on his laboratory desk. Similarly the citizen of Huxley’s Brave New World who stumbles across a volume of Shakespeare in some vine-grown ruins and squats on a potsherd to read it is in a fairer way of getting at a sonnet than the Harvard sophomore taking English Poetry II. The educator whose business it is to teach students biology or poetry is unaware of a whole ensemble of relations which exist between the student and the dogfish and between the student and the Shakespeare sonnet. To put it bluntly: A student who has the desire to get at a dogfish or a Shakespeare sonnet may have the greatest difficulty in salvaging the creature itself from the educational package in which it is presented. The great difficulty is that he is not aware that there is a difficulty; surely, he thinks, in such a fine classroom, with such a fine textbook, the sonnet must come across! What’s wrong with me?

The sonnet and the dogfish are obscured by two different processes. The sonnet is obscured by the symbolic package which is formulated not by the sonnet itself but by the media through which the sonnet is transmitted, the media which the educators believe for some reason to be transparent. The new textbook, the type, the smell of the page, the classroom, the aluminum windows and the winter sky, the personality of Miss Hawkins-these media which are supposed to transmit the sonnet may only succeed in transmitting themselves. It is only the hardiest and cleverest of students who can salvage the sonnet from this many-tissued package. It is only the rarest student who knows that the sonnet must be salvaged from the package. (The educator is well aware that something is wrong, that there is a fatal gap between the student’s learning and the student’s life: The student reads the poem, appears to understand it, and gives all the answers. But what does he recall if he should happen to read a Shakespeare sonnet twenty years later? Does he recall the poem or does he recall the smell of the page and the smell of Miss Hawkins?)

One might object, pointing out that Huxley’s citizen reading his sonnet in the ruins and the Falkland Islander looking at his dogfish on the beach also receive them in a certain package. Yes, but the difference lies in the fundamental placement of the student in the world, a placement which makes it possible to extract the thing from the package. The pupil at Scarsdale High sees himself placed as a consumer receiving an experience-package; but the Falkland Islander exploring his dogfish is a person exercising the sovereign right of a person in his lordship and mastery of creation. He too could use an instructor and a book and a technique, but he would use them as his subordinates, just as he uses his jackknife. The biology student does not use his scalpel as an instrument; he uses it as a magic wand! Since it is a “scientific instrument,” it should do “scientific things.”


I propose that English poetry and biology should be taught as usual, but that at irregular intervals, poetry students should find dogfishes on their desks and biology students should find Shakespeare sonnets on their dissecting boards.


The situation of the tourist at the Grand Canyon and the biology student are special cases of a predicament in which everyone finds himself in a modern technical society–a society, that is, in which there is a division between expert and layman, planner and consumer, in which experts and planners take special measures to teach and edify the consumer. The measures taken are measures appropriate to the consumer: The expert and the planner know and plan, but the consumer needs and experiences.

(Thanks to JZ for telling me about this!)

On the other hand, you won’t necessarily know if information will be useful until it is, which is why you should always pay attention in geography class! You never know when your knowledge about tsunamis will save your family and a hundred other tourists.

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2 Responses to What do you NEED to know? (2/2)

  1. A Yuen says:

    Interesting post and excerpt! I had not thought about education as something to be ‘salvaged’ from a ‘package’ before. Also that ten-year-old is massively cool.

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